Famous atheist and hurler of flaming shit heaps into the discourse, Richard Dawkins, said on Twitter: “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”
He then went on to say that he deplores eugenics on “Moral, political and ideological,” grounds, but simply wanted to assert that it would work.
I’m going to be charitable and not read this as a thinly veiled trial-balloon for global genocide, but as simply a statement someone who does not want to exterminate the majority of the human race thought it was a good idea to make in public.
First of all, what does it mean to say that eugenics “works.” Based on context, I think Dawkins was describing eugenics as a scientific principle. Which is too obvious to need saying: Given a bunch of rats, if you only let the largest ones breed, you’ll end up with a stock that mainly produces large rats. But of course, nobody would call this “eugenics,” they would call it breeding larger rats, as “they,” have for thousands of years. Eugenics is the name of a 20th century political movement which sought to selectively breed mankind as a whole. To throw out the name of a heinous political movement while claiming to merely be describing genetic principles, is such a cartoonishly inept thing for a writer and public intellectual to do, that one might be forgiven for wondering if it isn’t a trial balloon to see if mainstream society still finds the idea of eugenics revolting. Of course, I would never impute such nefarious motives. Which is not to deny that they might be there.
Let it be known then that when we discuss eugenics, we are discussing the human race and its possibilities. Does eugenics work? I’m reminded of former Secretary of Education William Bennett’s deranged observation that one could drive the crime rate down by aborting every Black baby. Exterminating 13% of the population would certainly reduce the population of criminals. What is more, the brutal police state you’d need to forcibly terminate millions of pregnancies could probably also perform general law enforcement. Of course, we must also consider that such a genocide would turn a population larger than Canada’s into a class of guerillas and terrorists, relentless and catastrophic in our wrath.
Whether a policy works or not is never only a question of whether it can achieve its specific goal. The unspoken justification for any policy is that it will make society better as a whole.
And just like the abortion example above, under certain imaginable eugenics regimes, there are superficial ways society might be better. Most of the early eugenics system would be a program of forced population reduction. We’d have to identify the genes we don’t want and those who have them, then keep them from passing them on. There’s the question of how we decide what genes those are. Must everyone below the 70th percentile for height die childless? What if a 30th percentile height individual also has an IQ in the 90th percentile? Must they certify that whoever they breed with is in the 90th percentile for height, with an IQ that is not too low? How do we prevent the “wrong,” people from breeding? I’m trying to imagine a eugenics program that is not a euphemism for ethno-racial or class extermination, and it seems that even when one tries to practice eugenics on ostensibly neutral grounds, one ends up with a profoundly unfree society that is much less enjoyable to live in than the one that came before it.
There are further complications. Environmental conditions influence how we express our genes, to an extent that is becoming better understood by the day. We may end up selecting against perfectly good genes simply because they happen to belong to people who have been artificially barred from reaching their full potential. The 1920s eugenics movement was rooted not in science, but in a Social Darwinian ethos, expressed through phrases like “water finds its level,” and “talent will out.” In other words, if someone is truly gifted, they will rise to the top by a law of nature, which means that the potential for any genetic line is reflected by wherever its current members stand in society. One problem with this is that no such corresponding principle was claimed for the upper classes. If “water finds its level,” then just as the talented rise, the untalented, no matter how well-born, must sink. Yet, nobody expected that the talentless son of an elite family would be found begging on the streets, even as they imagined that the street beggar had free reign to move into the upper classes armed only with talent. Mansions can’t be built fast enough to ensure that the mediocre elite does not crowd out the mediocre non-elite, to say nothing of the talented non-elite. I include the mediocre non-elite, because if mediocre rich people get mansions, why must poor people be exceptional to earn the same privilege? But, such thoughts are inconvenient; and if you could teach a hog to speak Latin, it would deny being a hog, because at Harvard, they teach you hogs don’t speak Latin. Dress an idiot up in an expensive education, and he’ll never learn he’s an idiot.
The old eugenics movement had the benefit of shitty sociology and piss poor science. Finishing school and Ivy league trained hogs could solve the problem of the poor by exterminating it and never wonder what mankind was losing.
But suppose we ignore this part, suppose “we,” whoever “we,” are, could settle on a set of characteristics and how to breed for them. Suppose we answered all the political questions, by cajoling, deceit, bribery, force or whatever works. Suppose we genetically universalize every “desired,” human trait. What then?
Humanity under eugenics might be made of Olympic athletes with looks that put central casting to shame and IQs in the high 170s, it would still be a deformed shadow of its former self. A humanity built for eugenics would be a species of broodmares and their studs. The life of a human would cease to be an end unto itself. We’d be racehorses. Nobody speaks of the intrinsic dignity of a racehorse, a racehorse’s sole justification for being is that it can run fast, and the faster it can run, the more fit it is to breed; the more fit its line is to continue and its progeny are to exist. Mankind at its will reduces entire species to living tools. The cow no longer serves its own cause, the wolf genome has been splintered in a hundred directions. The chicken’s thread of fate leads directly into billions of human stomachs and may do so forever.
I do not mean to wax poetic, the dog, the chicken and the cow, have no idea that they are the curated end of a long evolutionary history, they don’t know they have a past, which means they can’t have a history. Unless the human selective breeding program selects against historical-consciousness, our children in the world of eugenics will have no such luck. We would know that human beings were once self-justifying, individually as well as collectively. They will read, if allowed, about the days when humans did not ruthlessly cull themselves, they will remember a day when humanity was sovereign, not a product to be refined; when society was constantly being built and rebuilt to serve humanity, not humanity to build society.
Nor can we suppose that we will ascend some plateau where we can take our newly domesticated species for granted and the political eugenics program come to an end. DNA mutates, therefore, to maintain the proper distribution of desired characteristics, human reproduction would have to be carefully controlled, as with livestock. Look closely at agriculture and the creation of purebred dogs. Life always wants to go its own way, consequently, the breeding process never ends, especially when the traits being selected for are arbitrary, not dictated by the environment. In fact, Dawkins’s examples in his own defense imply as much. “Eugenics works on cows, dogs etc.” Yes, under eugenics, human life, whatever its excellence in certain qualities, will become as cheap as that of a dog or cow. Human dignity will be a historical curiosity.
Dawkins would have us set aside the moral considerations, but as I established above, eugenics begins and ends in politics, and politics without a sense of right and wrong is a monstrosity. So I’ll end by saying, that it is in the dignity of the most vulnerable that the dignity of all mankind is upheld. If the person least able to defend their right to exist is tyrannized by the law of might, we’re all tyrannized by it. Once you may cast aside any given human being simply because you have the power to do so, any human being may be cast aside. So no, eugenics does not work.